Don't Wait To Educate Residents About MSW Plans

How can a recycling program succeed if the citizens don't know the specifics? The key, according to experienced solid waste planners, is to educate and involve the public.

For example, consider the public your partner when planning and siting a facility. To involve residents in the siting process, do more than hold public meetings. By immediately and honestly addressing perceived problems, misinformation and emotional reactions can be prevented.

When developing a public education and involvement plan, make sure that all sectors of the community and region have been involved. Other points to consider include: * Tailor the program's messages to each targeted audience. Be consistent in the message and persistent in the delivery.

* Deliver positive messages to the public and update residents on the participation statistics.

* Use existing materials and avenues of delivery whenever possible. Also, provide many ways for participation to appeal to the community's various levels of interest and knowledge.

* Involve schools and solicit help from the community.

* Keep elected officials informed and involved.

* Annually evaluate the effectiveness of public information efforts.

It's difficult to organize a public involvement program for a broad audience. Therefore, select communication strategies based on who will benefit most from the information. In addition, develop different strategies for residential, commercial/industrial and governmental/institutional sectors.

To determine the best way to reach each segment, interview community leaders, establish a citizens' advisory group or conduct surveys. Educational leaders, church volunteers, interested citizens and government leaders will disseminate information within the community.

Local or regional advisory groups also be helpful in soliciting public support. For example, an advisory group can identify audiences and develop a means to provide information; inform decision makers; and evaluate and recommend public education methods. They also can be instrumental in implementing strategies. Select representatives from each county or sub-region to coordinate region-wide activities.

Coordinators can employ a wide range of activities and materials to provide information and to foster public involvement in the solid waste management process. Communities or regions must determine which activities and materials are economically feasible and will best fit their needs (see chart on page 45).

The lifestyle in rural areas is an advantage for public involvement planners. Life outside of an urban city is more intimate and residents feel a strong sense of community spirit. Public officials are more accessible, which in turn makes citizens feel that they can control important decisions. Also, community leaders and citizens can directly voice their support for solid waste programs to local officials. They can provide an effective network for spreading information on programs and special events.

Often, citizens in rural areas know their local newspaper editor and other media contacts. This, in addition to fewer competing stories, can help solid waste issues and events receive attention in the local news sources.

Ensure that the information is presented in a creative way. This doesn't necessarily mean flashy videos, full color brochures or paid advertisements. In fact, in rural areas these approaches may produce fewer results than low-cost methods.

It is best to take advantage of the face-to-face contacts which are common in rural communities. Effective low cost approaches include: * Using volunteers;

* Distributing press releases;

* Networking;

* Writing editorials and public service announcements;

* Incorporating solid waste information into school curriculum;

* Co-sponsoring contests with local businesses;

* Distributing printed materials from other sources;

* Having trained volunteers appear on local radio and television talk shows; and

* Depending on elected officials to promote public involvement.

Another way to reduce costs is to pursue regional education methods. This way, production costs are shared, making it easier for a community to pursue other projects.

A solid waste road show or speakers' bureau is a uniform method for educating public officials and the public on solid waste topics.

Trained volunteers can use written materials and videos or slides to speak to local officials and community groups throughout the region. The effectiveness of the presentation, however, largely depends on the presenter's public speaking skills. As an alternative, a video can address solid waste issues and suggest solutions. This arrangement ensures a uniform presentation of information, regardless of the presenter's abilities. The drawback, however, is that video production is expensive, often costing $1,000 per minute.

Ways to reduce costs include: using a local university's communications department to produce the video; finding professionals who will donate time or discount costs; or having volunteers write the script and prepare the graphics. Videos also can be funded through grants, business sponsors or joint funding by several jurisdictions.

Some planning agencies establish information clearinghouses to assist other cities, counties and citizens groups in their search for solid waste information. The clearinghouse should contain a variety of technical reports, solid waste trade journals, nationally distributed newsletters and samples of public information materials, solid waste school curricula and local and regional solid waste plans from across the country.

A Prime Example Liberty County, Ga., has found mobile solid waste educational facilities to be a cost-effective way to serve its 519 square mile geographic area. The unit is a converted tractor trailer, which according to the county, will travel to other areas in the region when funds are available.

To avoid the funding crunch, rural areas can share developmental and operational costs with nearby communities. These savings will allow them to design a more sophisticated presentation than they could've done on their own. For additional savings, use volunteers to staff the unit. In Liberty County, the mobile facility is staffed primarily by senior citizens.

Visitors to Liberty County's mobile education unit can view solid waste videos; use computers to uncover solid waste data; view pictorial displays and read reports on regional solid waste issues; participate in the hands-on exhibit on how paper is made; and watch a demonstration of how groundwater, water bodies and wells become contaminated.

Some communities dedicate a month to promoting MSW awareness. For example, eight counties in the Coastal Georgia region recognize April as "Solid Waste Awareness Month" (SWAM) adopted by the regional solid waste advisory council and the Coastal Georgia Regional Development Center (CGRDC).

April was chosen because it coincides with other environmental events such as Keep America Beautiful Month and Earth Day celebrations. Coordinating dates offer an opportunity for joint activities, which may reduce costs and increase participation.

In preparation for SWAM, the region's advisory council's public education and involvement committee distributed a list of suggested activities to local governments in the region. Each subcommittee member was responsible for requesting official adoption of the resolution by the cities in his or her county. Also, local governments were encouraged to conduct kick-off ceremonies.

To raise public awareness, the CGRDC, the public education subcommittee and the Golden Isles Humanities Association sponsored a regional recycled art contest. To publicize the contest, letters and flyers were mailed to community organizations and businesses. Also, advertisements were placed in local weekly and monthly newspapers and community newsletters and public service announcements were aired.

The entries were constructed from various materials. For example, a local architect, with the help of children, built a castle from discarded aluminum soft drink cans. The Coca Cola Co. helped by sponsoring the project's day-long construction session. Fortunately, this event received a lot of media coverage.

The methods of promoting MSW awareness range from editorial columns to art contests. All projects should serve one purpose: to educate residents about solid waste.